When an unbeaten Clay Buchholz was establishing himself as one of the best starting pitchers in the American League over the first half of last season, he could reach back and ramp it up when he needed more. In two different starts he threw pitches of 95.99 mph, according to BrooksBaseball.net, and in all but one of the dozen outings he made before an extended stretch on the disabled list he threw at least one pitch harder than 94.5 mph.
When Buchholz needed more on Monday, though, it simply wasn't there. PITCHf/x says he hit 93 a few times. His third-to-last pitch, though it wasn't close to the strike zone, reached a game-high 93.6. But the right-hander whose fastball averaged about 93.4 mph over the first half of last season sat mostly around 90 or 91 on Monday.
And the results were not good. Seven of the eight hitters Buchholz faced in the third inning registered a hit against him, and after 2.1 innings he left having surrendered six runs for the second time this season. Through four starts, his earned run average is 7.71 -- and the drop in velocity suggests it may take some time before his performance improves, because it's an indication the righty's arm isn't yet as strong as it needs to be to maximize the action that makes his assortment of pitches so effective.
"I think it all starts with arm strength," he added. "Arm strength creates movement with the pitches that I throw. A couple of them are flat right now."
Buchholz dismissed the notions that his Monday struggles were the result of his decision to sleep at Fenway Park after Sunday night's walkoff win, or the "awkward" 11 a.m. start time. Instead he suggested that he didn't pitch as poorly as the numbers ultimately made it appear.
He credited the opponent, saying that after Steve Lombardozzi led off the third by hitting a pitch over the middle of the plate, the Orioles hit "a couple good pitches" to perpetuate the rally that gave them a lead they'd never relinquish. “Up until the double," which came from Steve Clevenger and followed five singles and a force play, "I felt like I made some good pitches. Pitches that were off the plate and found holes."
Two of Baltimore's first four hits came on singles that found a way through the infield. Another came on a flair to shallow right, off the fists of Nick Markakis. But the contact became more solid as the inning progressed, starting with a line drive single to Chris Davis, continuing with the double to Clevenger, and finally resulting in a wall-ball single from Jonathan Schoop -- who hit the seventh pitch of a plate appearance in which he initially fell behind 0-and-2.
“This game’s always judged on the results so it’s hard to tell anybody that I felt good about today because I really didn’t," Buchholz said. "But being in this game for a little bit, you’ve got to take some good away from the bad, and that’s the only way that you can stay looking forward and not dwell on the things that happen that go wrong.
"Threw some good pitches today, threw some bad ones – some good ones got hit, all the bad ones got hit, just the way it is.”
After missing most of last season's second half with discomfort in his neck and shoulder, Buchholz changed his routine by not throwing a bullpen session until he arrived at spring training, and Monday he maintained that his plan properly prepared him for the season, saying, "That was the only way that I could go about it."
But with that slower start he has also been slower to get his arm strength to where it needs to be.
“I have a feel for every pitch that I throw, sometimes it just doesn’t work out," Buchholz said. "With the arm strength comes velocity, and then comes movement on my pitches. It’s lacking a little bit right now.”
So now the question becomes how quickly Buchholz can get that strength back -- or, if it comes slowly, how quickly he can find a way to pitch better more consistently without it. He was effective in the World Series at less than full strength, and this season delivered quality starts against the Yankees and White Sox prior to Monday's clunker, so that's encouraging. So is the recovery Buchholz had from a poor start in 2012, when he opened the year with six straight starts of at least five earned runs, then posted a 3.19 ERA over his next 22 outings.
But whether those types of results return again appears to depend on how soon his arm strength does.
“It feels like it’s getting better," he said. "It wasn’t really late in the game today, but later in the past two games if I wanted to reach back, 92, 93 was there. It’s still pretty early. Still got a lot of time left in this first half. I’ve got to pull it all together and go from there.”